Sunday, August 29, 2010

"Seventeen Crows," an award-winning short story by Gloria Nye

Seventeen crows stood waiting at the end of the lane. Yesterday, it was sixteen and the day before that, fifteen. She never believed that crows could count but . . . And were they the same birds each day – plus one, or did new ones fly in just to take turns tormenting her?

They weren’t even lined up on the split rail fence like respectable crows, but had planted themselves on the hard packed dirt of the driveway among the scattered gravel that Brad had used to fill in the potholes.

Grandma Stokes always said that crows meant death. Christy never believed that. Why with the number of crows around that would mean people would be dying every day. She took another step toward the line of black birds.

When the first crow arrived seventeen days ago, Christy didn’t make much of it, except to wonder why it just stood there on the ground staring at her. It wasn’t pecking on road kill or insects or whatever else crows eat, and when she walked past it – only about two feet away – it didn’t move.

The next day, at half past nine when she went to collect the mail, there were two crows – standing neatly side-by-side . . . watching her as she walked by. On day three, one more companion had joined them. There they stood . . . all in a line with marble eyes aimed at her. Maybe they weren’t crows. Maybe they were some shape-shifting demon come to harass her. On the fourth day, she rushed the quartet, shooing with her hands and yelling, “Get off now, you black buzzards!” Eight flapping wings lifted the creatures into the air.

When she and Brad moved in two years ago, Brad had put up a brand new post box well back from the road so the snow plough wouldn’t knock it over. He also attached a long skinny pole to it with a Canadian Flag on top, so that they could find it when it got plowed under. Christy folded the flyer around the Bell bill and turned to go back to the house. Those four damn crows had not flown off. They had lined themselves up again . . . and calmly continued to stare at her. With a quick step, she strode past them. All the way to the front porch, she never once looked back.

It wasn’t her idea to live in the country. She had come from Halifax to Toronto to be an actress. How could she pursue a career living on 100 acres of farm . . . miles from nowhere? The small town of Palmerston, ten kilometers away, didn’t offer any chance for her to be seen on TV or to get a movie part, but Brad had made his mind up. It was all right for him. As a pharmaceutical salesman,  he could live anywhere.

She dumped the mail on the coffee table and sidled over to the front window where she pulled the curtain aside an inch and peeked around it. Still there, at the far end of the driveway – seventeen black blobs, forming a dark mass. She yanked the curtain shut, rattling the wooden rings against each other. When would this end? Why were they there? Did Brad hire a crow tamer to drive her crazy? But he couldn't. He was dead, and it wasn’t her fault he was killed – not really. She was glad he was gone . . . but that secret would die with her.

Everyone thought they were the perfect couple. Perfect being the defining word. “The roast is undercooked.” “You drive too fast.” “How many times do I have to tell you to line my socks up from dark to light.”

He would be proud of those damn crows. They came like clockwork and their silence was unnatural. Don’t crows squawk a lot? She straightened the calendar knocked askew from the swaying curtain. October 17, six months to the day since the accident. You’d think by now, the letter would have come. Every morning – not counting weekends – she’d walk down to the mailbox, praying that it had arrived. But instead of a letter, for the last seventeen days she was met with yet another one of those black creatures waiting for her.

Well, she’d had enough. She didn’t need eighteen dumb crows staring at her! She spun around and darted to the back kitchen where Brad kept his shotgun. Handy for killing groundhogs and rabbits, he’d said. He’d fancied himself a marksman, but he never hit anything. She picked up the heavy shotgun and slid the shells in the way Brad had taught her.

“I’ll give those smug black devils something to think about.” She marched out the side door and started down the lane toward the waiting audience.

She had never shot anything before, besides Brad . . . but then that was an accident, wasn’t it? He’d said he wouldn’t be back for five days, and he always followed his well-made plans with razor precision. The legal proceedings had taken weeks before she had been declared innocent. Now she only needed the final paperwork so she could sell this place and get back to Toronto to be an actress. No more time to waste. Soon she’d be twenty-five and too old to do anything.

She’d met Brad at the Blue Ginger where she’d been waitressing between auditions. He looked so crisp and clean and neat, not like the rough Nova Scotian boys. And so what if he was eleven years older than she was? He was established in business and would take good care of her while she was waiting to be discovered.

Those first few months were idyllic. Christy loved being looked after and having Brad teach her his sophisticated ways. But he didn’t like it when she cut her hair and became a blonde. Then he had the nerve to stop her from taking that movie part. She shouldn’t have told him it meant taking off her top. It wasn’t long after that when he decided to be a gentleman farmer. Did he think she was stupid? He just wanted her out of the city and away from that man who was going to give her a start in an art film. She had a good figure, why not show it off?

Cradling the rifle across her front, she continued down the drive. It had been forever since her last visit to her Toronto hairdresser and an inch of black roots pushed into her blond curls. The group of crows hadn’t moved. It was peculiar how they arranged themselves each morning. You would swear they were giving a Math lesson to a bunch of nine year olds. Always in neat groups of two’s or three’s and then four’s. A new addition would patiently stand apart and wait for the next day to be evened up. Just like Brad. Everything had to be in order.

“By whose rules,” she had asked him once.

He looked at her as if she were in kindergarten and said, “Mine.”

That night, she rearranged the spices out of alphabetical order, mixed tins of corn and peas in with the peaches and mandarin oranges, and tapped each picture frame – in the whole house – crooked.

So when Brad announced he wouldn’t be back for five days, that meant he wouldn’t be back for five days. And on Saturday, when they were in town, he told Margie at the L & M Food Market, and Joe at the Esso Station, that he was going to North Bay . . . for five days. So what could a poor girl do, when – on the fourth day – she heard someone coming into the house? She had to protect herself. That morning she had loaded the gun and, by 8:30 that night, was sitting on the bed . . . waiting. When the figure appeared in the doorway, what could she do but shoot? The recoil of the gun knocked her back on the pillow and the dark figure lay in a bloody heap.

At the trial she explained that she always took the rifle upstairs when Brad was away, and everyone knew that her husband never changed his plans. She didn’t mention that she’d received a voice mail saying he was coming home a day early . . . or that she had erased the message. But she almost lost it when that good-looking lawyer asked about the call from Brad’s cell phone.

“What time did you receive his call?” he asked, glancing down at the phone records . . . indicating the exact time.

Christy, the distraught widow, shot her eyes skyward, recalling his voice. She had to think fast. Damn those phone records.

“Your husband did call the day before he came home . . . unexpectedly?”

“Oh, yes . . . well no . . . I’m not sure,” Christy answered. “I had just started watching TV when the phone rang.” That was true. Brad had called on his lunch hour at precisely 1:09, just when The Bold and the Beautiful had started after commercials. She looked straight at the cute lawyer, “I didn’t answer it and . . . whoever it was didn’t leave a message.”

It was only a small lie and she'd been acquitted.

With a firm grasp of the rifle, she continued down the lane, but when she looked up at the congregation ahead, something had changed. Those ornery birds weren’t in their neat little rows, columns, or groups. As she got closer, she saw they had formed a semicircle with the opening toward her . . . as if inviting her in. She took two steps, and stopped. The group moved as one, closing her into the middle of a perfect circle.

The largest bird stretched his neck up and screeched a loud “caw” at her. The one beside it followed with a piercing cry, and the next and the next joined the raucous chorus until seventeen scolding voices had swelled into a maddening choir. A huge bird opposite her – beak hinged wide – spread his wings and lifted off.

Christy swung the rifle up in a frantic attempt to aim it. Frenzied shrieks tore the air. Flapping, fluttering wings stormed around her . . . hitting her face . . . pulling her hair out by the roots. She shot wildly into the melee, raising a shower of dust and spitting gravel. The rifle slammed back, kicking against her shoulder. She staggered off balance and seventeen screeching black monsters descended.

Old Ted Saunders, on his regular mail delivery, found her the next morning and called 911 from his new cellular telephone. While he was waiting for the O.P.P. to arrive, he put her

mail into the box. That morning he delivered the Sears Fall Catalogue, a flyer for a steel roof that would last a lifetime, and a business envelope from the Ontario Provincial Court with the official announcement of her freedom.

Later that day he was overheard talking to Margie at the L & M Food Market. “She musta been bleedin’ out of near to twenty holes, that woman.” He shook his head. “Prob’ly all night long.”

Gloria Nye has won several writing awards for her short stories.  At Eden Mills Writers' Festival, she won an honourable mention; at Words Alive in Sharon, she won 3rd prize for Pillow Talk, a story she started in one of Brian's workshops; and at the Elora Writers’ Festival, she won first prize for "Seventeen Crows," a story started as an exercise in another one of Brians workshops.

She has also completed two novels and is researching the third in her Dragonfly series. Through Spiral Press w ww.spiralpress.cashe’s edited and published the Dream Quest Dictionary, Stories of Prayers & Faith – a collection of inspiring stories from 26 authors, and is presently editing and publishing an Anthology of Prose and Poems for the Orangeville Headwaters Writers' Guild.

Mother of one, grandmother of three, she lives on a 12-acre wooded retreat centre by the Eramosa River a perfect place to write.

For information about Brian's writing workshops and creative writing courses, see here.

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